The return of Cody Zeller to the Charlotte Hornets starting lineup should be a point of emphasis when evaluating the team and reason for optimism for Hornets fans.
Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller sharing the floor have represented positive results for this team dating back to Zeller’s 2013-14 rookie season when the two posted a +2.1 net rating in 866 minutes. I’m willing to toss out the nightmare Lance Stephenson 2014-15 season, when Walker and Zeller were -2.0 together – there were very few positive combinations in the starting lineup that season. In 2015-16, the two were +3.8 in 1509 minutes, good for a top-50 ranking among duo’s in the league that season. But in 2016-17, the duo peaked, manufacturing a +7.5 net rating in only 59 games played together – a top-20 mark among two-man lineups.
Cody Zeller is a great screen setter and quite nimble for a seven-footer, so he’s a perfect match with Kemba Walker offensively. Zeller finished third among centers in screen assists, at 5.9 per game, in 2016-17. The two centers ahead of him: Marcin Gortat and Rudy Gobert. Although Zeller only played 33 games last season, he still made an enormous impact as screener when healthy. Per 48 minutes, he averaged 9.9 screen assists. The Hornets simply need Zeller to stay healthy. If he does, the game becomes immensely easier for Kemba Walker and the offense soars. Let’s examine.
Cody Zeller understands his role as a player perfectly. A huge part of the Hornets secondary transition has been drag screens for Kemba Walker, leading to plenty of early offense. Zeller is one of the best in the league at immediately sprinting to set a drag screen high on the floor, maximizing space for the ball handler to operate.
You might have noticed something else unique about that Zeller screen in the last clip. He’s one of the best at flipping the angle of the screen after the defender has committed. Watch the last clip again and notice how Zeller has his chest parallel to the baseline until John Wall commits to a side, then immediately flips his body to trap Wall and send Kemba zipping towards the hopeless help defender.
Again, sprinting directly to Walker’s defender before the defense can get set behind the play. This is as good as a transition layup.
Walker wasn’t able to abuse help defenders in space last season due to the lack of willingness from Dwight Howard to screen for him on a consistent basis, early in the shot clock.
In the clip below, Zeller sprints the floor in an attempt to beat Valanciunas to the rim. As soon as he realizes he has no advantage, Zeller sprints back up the floor to screen for Kemba. And even without a ton of space to operate in, Kemba can make a big man help defender look silly. These are the type of heady plays that will return in 2018-19 with Zeller back as a starter.
The Hornets loved to use “Horns” sets and hand-off plays to free Kemba Walker for open looks with Cody Zeller as well (another offensive fold that Dwight Howard sabotaged last season). Walker scored 1.18 points per possession and had an effective field goal percentage of 56.5 in hand-off plays during the 2016-17 season – both elite marks. You have to imagine this very effective offensive weapon will return this coming season.
Many times the hand-off was out of a designed play, but Zeller is smart and unselfish, so he recognizes when to flash to the high-post and keep the offense moving. Walker only needs a small crevice to get his shot off and Zeller knows exactly how to deliver it.
When defenses wanted to counter the hand-off and attempt to deny Walker the ball, the basketball IQ and synergy between Walker and Zeller took over.
The Hornets offense should run smoother this coming season. Kemba Walker should be able to play free again. There’s no reason that the Hornets offense can’t attain top-10 status in 2018-19 with Walker and Zeller spearheading the attack.
It’s really not a question of whether or not Kemba Walker and Cody Zeller will be able to resurrect their magic as a duo. The question is for how many games? If Cody Zeller can play more than 70 games for the first time since the 2015-16 season then it’s a safe bet that the Charlotte Hornets will be returning to the playoffs in the Eastern Conference.